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Biological Anthropology
Complexity in Biological Anthropology in 2011: Species,
Reproduction, and Sociality
Kristi L. Lewton
ABSTRACT In 2011, the research of biological anthropologists contributed to the emergence of increasingly com-
plex explanations of biological phenomena from previous, simpler interpretations. Major subjects of bioanthropo-
logical research in 2011 include new developments in understanding ancient hominin species and archaic Homo
population histories; the physiological, neurological, and social effects of mating and reproducing in both humans
and nonhuman primates; and the evolution of primate sociality and human cooperation. This review considers these
topics of research from a perspective of complexity using conference proceedings, published articles, and social
media. In closing, this article demonstrates the natural extension of our scholarly research to modern social networks
and illustrates how they may act as a platform by which to increase intradisciplinary engagement and to highlight
the complex, wide-reaching, and innovative research that our eld contributes to society. [sociality, Denisovans,
Australopithecus sediba, biological anthropology, annual review]
t is a testament to the strength of our discipline that our
research questions are so many and wide ranging. This
year, bioanthropologists made discoveries about extant and
extinct species, added to the growing literature on human
sociality, proposed a model for the evolution of primate
sociality, tested the hormonal and neurological effects of
mating and parenthood on primates, and produced insights
on the myriad facets of infant developmentand this list
barely skims the surface of what biologically inclined anthro-
pologists were up to. Although these research topics cover a
wide swath of bioanthropology, they share a unifying theme:
complexity. These trending topics both focused on inher-
ently complex systems (e.g., social systems, the interaction
between physiology and behavior) and also advanced our
understanding of complexity within each.
The years research encompasses many levels of bio-
logical organization and complexity. At the population and
species level, our understanding of hominin species diver-
sity, phylogeny, and population histories continues to grow
through contributions from new genetic data on modern
humans, Denisovans, and Neanderthals. At the level of the
individual, recent work on the physiological and neurologi-
cal effects of mating, reproduction, and raising offspring has
resulted in an evolving view of primate parental ecology.
And, our understanding of the evolution of primate (incl.
human) social systems has been advanced by ancestral state
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 196202, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. c 2012 by the American Anthropological
Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2012.01418.x
reconstructions and modeling techniques. I conclude this
review with a forward-looking summary of the state of the
eld and argue for the importance of online social networks
as both a natural extension of and a locus for our scholarly
work and as a venue for public engagement.
The recovery of the remarkably complete skeletons of
Australopithecus sediba from Malapa Cave in South Africa con-
stitutes one of the most fascinating fossil nds in the past 50
years (Berger et al., 2010). Together, the skeletons (MH1,
a juvenile male, and MH2, an adult female) preserve cra-
nial anatomy, an endocast, arm and leg anatomy, pelvic and
shoulder girdles, hand and foot bones, and ribs and ver-
tebrae. This year, a special series of articles published in
Science detailed the morphology of the brain (Carlson et al.,
2011), pelvis (Kibii et al., 2011), hand and wrist (Kivell
et al., 2011), and foot and ankle (Zipfel et al., 2011) of
the new species. Based on the available fossil and geological
data, A. sediba is a 1.98 Ma small-brained hominin that shares
some derived features of the hand and pelvis with Homo but
also exhibits many primitive morphologies (e.g., long arms,
small brain, apelike foot) that it shares with australopiths
(Carlson et al., 2011; Kibii et al., 2011; Kivell et al., 2011;
Pickering et al., 2011; Zipfel et al., 2011). These fossils
reveal an increasingly complex (and unexpected) picture of
Lewton Year in Review: Biological Anthropology 197
Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution in which a small-brained
species with primitive body proportions was contempora-
neous (but not necessarily sympatric) with early Homo.
The mosaic of primitive andderivedfeatures that charac-
terizes A. sediba makes the interpretation of its phylogenetic
relationship to other hominins, especially Homo, unclear.
Berger et al. (2010) contend that the primitive features of
A. sediba suggest it is an australopith and that its derived
features indicate that it is ancestral to Homo. However, not
all researchers agree, and the interpretation that the Malapa
hominins are directly ancestral to Homo (Pickering et al.,
2011) dismisses the earliest evidence of fossil Homo at 2.3 Ma
(a maxilla from Hadar, Kimbel et al., 1997). Furthermore,
this scenario requires a tremendous amount of morpholog-
ical change (e.g., substantial increase in brain size, shift to
modern body proportions) to have occurred in the short
time between A. sediba at 1.98 Ma and the emergence of
several Homo species around 2 Ma (Spoor, 2011). Another
interpretation is that the Malapa fossils represent a relic
population at the tail-end of the time range during which A.
sediba lived but that the earlier members of the species were
ancestral to Homo (Berger et al., 2010). Counter to both
of these ideas is that A. sediba should actually be subsumed
within genus Homo because it shares synapomorphies with
Homo and postdates the earliest fossil attributed to genus
A further complication for interpreting both the phy-
logenetic position and functional signicance of A. sedibas
morphological traits is that many of the features used to de-
scribe the species are based on the juvenile MH1 skeleton.
This is because it is more complete than the adult MH2.
However, it is unclear how different the adult and juvenile
morphologies of this species were. What is clear is that these
fossils represent a previously unknown species and signi-
cantly contribute to the increasingly complex picture of a
diverse group of contemporaneous hominin species living in
the Pleistocene (2.6 Ma to 11 ka).
In addition to debate on species histories, the expansion
of our ancestors out of Africa, the dispersal of Homo sapi-
ens to all corners of the earth, and what we did along the
way is always a major topic of discussion. This year, that
discussion revolved around questions concerning the impor-
tance of a little-known population of archaic homininsthe
Denisovansto the Neanderthalhuman interbreeding de-
bate and to understanding the number and timing of disper-
sals of H. sapiens.
Between 30 and 48 ka, a nger bone and a molar set-
tled in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia
(Derevianko et al., 2008; Reich et al., 2010). These spec-
imens came from two individuals known as Denisovans
and were located in a stratigraphic layer that holds artifacts
from both the Middle and Upper Paleolithic tool industries
(Derevianko et al., 2008). A comparison of nuclear genetic
data of humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans suggests that
(1) Neanderthals and Denisovans are sister taxa who shared
a common ancestor that diverged from the modern human
lineage around 800 ka, and (2) Neanderthals and Deniso-
vans diverged from each other around 640 ka (Reich et al.,
2010). At the moment, it appears that Denisovans may be
descendants of H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis (Reich et al.,
2010), but this will remain equivocal until more genetic and
morphological analyses are completed.
Although relatively little is known about this popula-
tion, genetic data can inform our understanding of the route
and number of waves of Homo sapiens dispersals out of Africa
by tracing the genetic signature of Denisovans in modern
human populations. This year, David Reich and colleagues
(2011) published an article in the American Journal of Human
Genetics that analyzed SNPs from 33 populations from India,
Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Australia and noted the pres-
ence or absence of Denisovan DNA (previously extracted
from the fossils, Reich et al., 2010) in these populations.
The results suggest that Southeast Asia was settled in at least
two waves. The rst wave included the ancestors of mod-
ern New Guineans and Australians, the second those of East
Asians and Indonesians. Because all non-Africans share the
same amount of Neanderthal DNA, these results are con-
sistent with one major dispersal of H. sapiens out of Africa
followed by several dispersals along the southern coastal
route from Africa to Asia. In addition, the data suggest that
interbreeding between H. sapiens and Denisovans occurred
around the time of the rst wave of dispersal to Southeast
Asia (Rasmussen et al., 2011; Reich et al., 2011). Reich
et al. (2011) posit that this admixture occurred in Southeast
Asia because the descendants of the rst wave share 46
percent of Denisovan DNA, while the descendants of the
second wave do not carry Denisovan DNA. This pattern of
Denisovan DNA in modern populations is taken by Reich
et al. (2011) to indicate that Denisovans occupied a large
range between Siberia and Southeast Asia. Others, however,
are more reticent to describe the numbers and mode of dis-
persal of archaic humans (Martin on-Torres et al., 2011) and
suggest that Denisovans may have originated in Asia and later
migrated to Siberia (Martin on-Torres et al., 2011; Skoglund
and Jakobsson 2011).
What is perhaps most interesting about the Denisovan
hominins is what we dont know. We currently have genetic
material from one tooth and one phalanx, and the popula-
tion structure and history that those data suggest are already
complicated. Imagine how intricately detailed the explana-
tions of human population movements and admixture might
become when we have a large sample of Denisovan fossils.
As Rasmussen et al. (2011) note, [t]he true history of hu-
man diversication is likely to be more complex than the
simple demographic models considered here (2011:97).
As with most new discoveries, the years research on
human paleontology illustrates a more complicated scenario
of human evolution than was previously understood. A ho-
minin species with primitive body proportions and a small
brain, but an apparently derived, Homo-like pelvis that lived
at nearly the same time as Homo erectus, with its more mod-
ern body type, was unexpected. Likewise, the genetic data
198 American Anthropologist Vol. 114, No. 2 June 2012
on Denisovans complicates our previous understanding of
human Old World migrations by demonstrating that there
were multiple dispersals of H. sapiens into East Asia. These
ndings allow us to embrace complex narratives of human
origins that will become more and more intricately detailed
as future ndings unfold.
Although our understanding of species and population his-
tories has become more nuanced, so too has our study of
biological variation at the level of the individual. Topics
of papers and conference presentations this year covered
the intersection among the physiological, hormonal, and so-
cial aspects of reproduction and offspring rearing. Although
some researchers focused on maternalfetal ecology, oth-
ers presented research on the neurobiological and hormonal
effects of reproduction and parental interaction with off-
spring. Clancy and Rutherford organized a symposiumat the
American Association of Physical Anthropologists confer-
ence in Minneapolis titled: Eating for Two: Maternal Ecol-
ogy and Nutrition in Human and non-Human Primates, that
turned out to be standing-room only. The contributors to
this symposium discussed the effects of maternal nutrition,
social experience, and lactation on infant development and
biology. Hinde and colleagues (2011) presented a review
of recent research on Mothers milk and commensal gut
bacteria and noted the presence of 106 strains of 19 species
of gut bacteria in mothers milk. They suggested a trans-
mission model in which maternal gut bacteria translocate to
the mammary gland and are then passed to and populate the
infants gut through nursing. In a similar vein, Yildirim and
colleagues (2011) discussed maternal vaginal microbes and
Miller (2011) presented data on the immune functions of
mothers milk. Clancy and colleagues (2011) discussed the
maternal reproductive effects of consuming foods that incite
or ght inammation (rened carbohydrates and prebiotics,
respectively), such as miscarriage and infertility, and pre-
sented preliminary data linking systemic inammation (as
represented by C-reactive protein) to the presence of gluten
Another theme of the Eating for Two symposium was
the cost of reproduction, discussed by Dunsworth and
colleagues (2011) and by Piperata and Guatelli-Steinberg
(2011). Dunsworth et al. (2011) presented data that re-
fute the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis and introduced
a new hypothesis that explains human infant altriciality
based on maternal physiology and energetics. The obstet-
rical dilemmathe tradeoff between selection for large-
brained infants and selection on narrow pelvic girdles to re-
duce the biomechanical costs of bipedality in early hominins
(Washburn, 1960)has been largely unchallenged. Recent
work on maternal energetics (Dunsworth et al., 2011) and
the effects of pelvic width on bipedal cost of locomotion
suggests that this particular trade-off model does not t the
data: rst, human relative gestation length is comparable
to that of other mammals (Dunsworth et al., 2011); sec-
ond, there is no statistical relationship between pelvic width
and the cost of bipedal walking in modern humans (War-
rener, 2011; Lewton et al., 2012). Therefore, contrary to
the prediction of the obstetrical hypothesis, altricial birth in
humans is likely not a result of biomechanical considerations
but instead may be related to a tradeoff between mini-
mizing the maternal cost of gestation and maximizing fetal
Although the effects of mating and reproduction on ma-
ternal ecology have always been and continue to be a focus
of bioanthropology, recent work has also explored the im-
pacts of mating and reproduction on paternal physiology.
Research presented by Hinde and colleagues at the Soci-
ety for Neuroscience conference (2011) suggests that father
and nonfather titi monkeys (Callicebus cupreus) experience
differential responses to separation from and reunion with
their pair mates. Functional brain MRIs of these males after
separation and reunion with their pair mates reveal that,
compared to nonfathers, fathers exhibit increased glucose
uptake in regions of the brain that are responsible for social
recognition and emotional memory. These results add to
a growing body of literature that examines the physiolog-
ical effects of parenthood on males and complements the
historical emphasis on maternal ecology.
Another study on the hormonal effects of parenting
(this time in human males) was presented by Gettler and
colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(2011). This study used longitudinal data from the Cebu
Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey to investigate the
effect of partnering and fathering on male testosterone lev-
els. Previous work by Gray and colleagues has demonstrated
that partnered human males have lower levels of testos-
terone than single males (Gray et al., 2002) and that fathers
have lower levels of testosterone than nonfathers (Gray
et al., 2006). Gettler et al. (2011) build on this work,
demonstrating that males with high levels of testosterone
are more likely to become fathers, but that after becoming
a partner and father, the same males interactions with their
children causes their testosterone levels to decline. Gettler
et al.s (2011) results suggest that testosterone mediates the
tradeoff between investing in mating and investing in par-
enting. Ultimately, Gettler et al. suggest that human males
have an evolved neuroendocrine architecture that is respon-
sive to committed parenting, supporting a role of men as
direct caregivers during hominin evolution (2011:16196).
This body of research on reproduction and parenting
challenges the traditional narrative of primate parental care,
in which females are considered caretakers of offspring and
males are considered resource providers. There are some
primate taxa for which male parental care has already been
demonstrated (owl monkeys, callitrichids, and gibbons), but
this phenomenon has generally been considered uncommon.
The emerging view of primate parental ecology is now up-
ending the previous paradigmand generating many questions
for future research.
Lewton Year in Review: Biological Anthropology 199
Today, in the Digital Age, the phrase social network has
an entirely different meaning than it used to. But social net-
works characterize the primate clade and have always been
important areas of research for all of anthropology, including
archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, and primatology.
Recently, anthropologists have been asking how and when
the many forms of primate social structures evolved and
how primate sociality was primed to facilitate the evolution
of complex sociality that is marked by cooperative behav-
ior in humans. Shultz et al. (2011) tested several models of
the evolution of primate social systems using ancestral node
reconstructions and found that the best-supported model
was one in which solitary foraging evolved into multimale
multifemale groups with the transition from nocturnality
to diurnality, suggesting that large social groups may have
been an antipredator strategy. Pair bonding and one-male
multifemale groups likely evolved later from multimale
multifemale groups. Shultz and colleagues (2011) suggest
that this second transition to kin-based groups, which are
rare in mammals, was a key, preaptive feature of anthropoid
primates that ultimately facilitated the evolution of cooper-
ation in humans.
Although social group living has advantages that are ex-
ploited by most primates, it also has individual costs. The
effects of social relationships on physiological states are com-
plex, and there are conicting reports of the physiological
costs of social rank in primates (see Gesquiere et al., 2011).
In some primate studies (which tend to be on cercopithecoid
monkeys that inhabit multimalemultifemale groups), low-
ranking individuals demonstrate increased levels of physio-
logical indicators of stress (e.g., fecal glucocorticoids, fGC),
perhaps in response to decreased access to resources and in-
creased levels of experienced aggression from others. In
other studies, an interaction effect has been found between
dominance hierarchies and their stability such that in stable
social groups, dominant individuals exhibit lower levels of
stress hormones than high-ranking individuals, but in un-
stable groups, dominant individuals experience high levels
of testosterone and stress hormones (Sapolsky, 1992). In a
report in Science, Gesquiere and colleagues (2011) further
nuance previous understanding of social causes of physiolog-
ical stress. Gesquiere et al. (2011) compared stress hormone
levels (fGC) among male baboons and found that, in general,
high-ranking males had lower fGC levels than low-ranking
males but that the alpha male exhibited higher fGC levels
than lower ranking males. These results held regardless of
the stability of dominance hierarchies. At least in these ba-
boons, it is more stressful (and likely energetically costly) to
be the alpha male, and thus, being the second-ranking beta
male may have more health benets.
Although previous research on primate social systems
has generally focused on nonhuman primates, there has been
a shift in recent years to a focus on understanding human
social systems from a behavioral ecology perspective. The
complex system of cooperation and punishment that char-
acterizes human societies is an especially important topic
because it is unique among primates and is part of what
makes us human. There were several papers this year on
human sociality, including a Sackler Colloquium in the Pro-
ceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: In the light of
evolution V: Cooperation and conict (Strassman et al.,
2011). For example, Strassmann (2011) found that patterns
of care and mortality of children in the agriculturalist Do-
gon of Mali supported predictions derived fromkin selection
theory but not those froma hypothesis of cooperative breed-
ing. Although other work has supported the categorization of
humans as cooperative breeders (for a review, see Kramer,
2010), Strassmann suggests that humans exhibit a diversity
of social systems and that one societal descriptor does not ac-
curately t all (Strassmann, 2011). Cheney (2011) and Silk
and House (2011) discussed cooperation in other animals
(e.g., felids, canids, birds, bats, and nonhuman primates),
and Silk and House (2011) made a compelling case for the
need for more comparative experimental research on altru-
ism, cooperation, and punishment in nonhuman primates
to understand the evolution of these behaviors in our own
species. Boyd et al. (2011) concluded the colloquium with
the hypothesis that social learning is a hallmark of human so-
ciality that facilitated the evolutionary success of our species.
Further work on human social groups emphasizes the
importance not just of social learning but also of coopera-
tion with non-kin and suggests that, together, large social
networks, cooperation with non-kin, and social learning en-
abled our species to ourish. Mathew and Boyds (2011)
study of warfare in the nomadic pastoralist Turkana soci-
ety suggests that large-scale, non-kin groups facilitated the
evolution of cooperation in humans. They describe large-
scale cooperative warfare efforts that are maintained via
direct punishment of defecting warriors through third-party
groups, which benet the entire Turkana ethnolinguistic
group, as opposed to smaller kin-based groups within the
Turkana as a whole (Mathew and Boyd, 2011). In addi-
tion, Hill and colleagues (2011) recently proposed that the
success of H. sapiens resulted from a social structure that
is unique among primates. In a broad demographic anal-
ysis of modern hunter-gatherer populations, Hill and col-
leagues (2011) found that both sexes may emigrate or remain
philopatric (as opposed to male dispersal or female dispersal
only, which characterizes many other primates), such that
residence groups were not necessarily kin-based and that the
majority of individuals within a group were unrelated. Based
on these observations, Hill and colleagues (2011) suggested
that the emergence of non-kin based human social struc-
ture resulted in the growth of social networks that provided
a context for large-scale cultural evolution and the emer-
gence of cumulative culture. However, while this system
of sexual dispersal and philopatry is indeed rare, it is not
unique among primates; male and female howler monkeys
also leave the natal group. Regardless of whether or not other
primates share this uncommon system of sex dispersal, hu-
mans are, indeed, unique in their willingness to cooperate
200 American Anthropologist Vol. 114, No. 2 June 2012
with non-kin, which is ultimately required for the evolution
of large-scale cooperation. Thus, human social structure,
which may be unique among primates, is marked by cooper-
ation and coordinated punishment of unrelated individuals
and is facilitated by cultural evolution and social learning.
As evidenced above, the study of sociality and social net-
works is a dening research interest for biological anthro-
pologists and has a rich history of scholarly study. However,
bioanthropologists engagement in online social networks as
participants instead of only as researchers is both a relatively
new and necessary phenomenon. Social media has begun to
enhance research and to facilitate public outreach. For exam-
ple, an online network of scientists can be a helpful research
tool and participating in this social network acts to enlarge
ones academic network. Fromaccessing scholarly materials
via other scientists (e.g., journal articles to which ones own
academic institution does not subscribe) to engaging in a
timely backchannel discussion of recently published arti-
cles or conference proceedings, many scientists have found
social media to be an accessible means of engagement with
scientists from other institutions with whom they are not
personally acquainted. Additionally, social media has the
power to facilitate rapid dissemination of research to the
public. In a eld that is guided by the desire to understand
from whence we, as a species, came, our research is bound
to garner a considerable amount of interest from the public,
who share this curiosity. Although public lectures are one
way to engage with members of our societies, online social
networks offer another, more broadly based way to share,
dialogue, and engage with the local and global public, and
to demonstrate the relevance of our research to their lives.
A recent session at the American Anthropological
Association meeting in Montreal on Digital Anthropol-
ogy is a good example of the use of online technolo-
gies to engage both with other anthropologists and the
public. Lende wrote an extensive piece about these Dig-
ital Anthropology talks on his blog, Neuroanthropology
(, in which he
highlights the growing use of open source technologies and
open access practices in producing scholarly research and
in interacting with both colleagues and students (Lende,
In a time of economic instability and uncertainty, it is
now more important than ever to demonstrate our con-
tributions to society. If we do not, we may continue to
experience censures like the one from Florida Governor
Rick Scott earlier this year, who encouraged undergradu-
ates to major in STEM elds and not anthropology, saying
that his state [doesnt] need a lot more anthropologists be-
cause jobs are not available for graduates of undergraduate
anthropology programs (Bender, 2011). Scott set up a false
dichotomy: in fact, a large portion of anthropologists are in
STEM elds (e.g., the Physical Anthropology Program of
the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences of the Na-
tional Science Foundation changed its name this year to the
Biological Anthropology Programto more accurately reect
the theoretical and evolutionary underpinnings of our eld).
Governor Scotts comment gained quite a bit of publicity and
immediate public response was facilitated by a vast online
social network that connects anthropologists fromthe entire
discipline via Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and blogs: indi-
vidual anthropologists addressed Governor Scott from their
blogs (e.g., Killgrove, 2011; Lende, 2011b), the American
Anthropological Association responded via its blog (2011),
and students of the University of South Florida put together
an informative and compelling online visual presentation ti-
tled This is Anthropology (Noble, 2011) that was quickly
disseminated across online social networks. As we continue
our studies of human nature, we must be cognizant of the
mutual benet of communicating our insights to our local
and global communities.
As anthropologists, we aim to understand human nature and
the ancestors fromwhich we evolved. The narratives that we
construct to inform understanding of our species have been
and are constantly changing. Our current understanding of
nonhuman primate and human evolution is (perhaps neces-
sarily) more complex than it was previously; from newly
discovered fossils emerged a more elaborate picture of what
early hominins were like, and genetic data shed light on the
migration patterns of ancient Homo sapiens, which were more
complicated than we expected. In addition, we are begin-
ning to understand how mating and offspring rearing affects
both maternal and paternal physiology; this approach has
challenged the prevailing narrative of mothers as caregivers
and has made roomfor a more holistic study of parental care.
As these interpretations become more varied and foster de-
bate, it is important that we relay our current understanding
of human nature to the public. Social media facilitates com-
munication both with an interested public and across our
disciplinary scholarly boundaries in support of anthropolog-
ical inclusivity.
Kristi L. Lewton Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Har-
vard University, Cambridge, MA 02138;;
Acknowledgments. I thank Tom Boellstorff and Agustn Fuentes
for inviting this review. Synthesizing a years worth of scholarly work
in a eld as vast as biological anthropology is quite an undertaking, and
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to ponticate on the intricacies
of our varied research endeavors. I thank Amanda Lobell, Stephanie
Meredith, and Laura Stroik who acted as sounding boards on the ideas
herein, and the latter two for their valuable comments on previous
Lewton Year in Review: Biological Anthropology 201
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